Standing at the back door of the kitchen the other night, I was indulging in two of my guilty pleasures – having a cigarette and listening to BBC Radio 4. One particular item on The World Tonight had me hooked. It was the story of a 12 year old Swedish boy called Ollie Frisk who had survived an attack by a bear. Ollie was out skiing with his friends when he accidentally veered into the home of a hibernating bear. The bear attacked and mauled him, causing severe bites to his legs and gouges to his back, but his friends helped to scare it off and he managed to slither out of the cave and down the slope to seek help. It was a compelling story of bravery, human instinct and survival from such a young lad. What amazed more was his retelling of it, from his hospital bed, over the phone, to a major foreign news station in more or less fluent English. Listen to the interview on the BBC iPlayer from 41 minutes in. OK so his grammar was occasionally a little mixed up, but he was confident enough not to bother about that and just get on with communicating and responding to the questions with an outstanding range of vocabulary. The speed of his responses showed that he was actually thinking in English, rather than labouriously translating questions, thinking of an answer, then retranslating; a process that less fluent speakers disguise with long ummms and errrs. I especially loved the ending when the interviewer asks Ollie if he will go skiing again – “Yeah, as soon as I can”. Good lad!
An Early Start
I wondered if perhaps one of Ollie’s parents was English, or he was a gifted linguist. But it seems he is, linguistically speaking, your average Scandinavian schoolboy. According to an EU poll 89% of Swedes claim to have English as ‘a language other than their mother tongue’. Peter Hansen, a native Dane, explains why Scandinavians generally speak such a high standard of English:
“Most Scandinavian children start learning English in their third year at school, usually around the age of nine, and continue until they leave school at sixteen or seventeen. Those who go onto secondary education and perhaps higher education (university), will learn or use English well into their twenties…Televised media in Scandinavia is usually aired in the original language in which it was produced, English language films, soap operas, dramas and documentaries proliferate Scandinavian media. It seems almost impossible to avoid English when living in Denmark, Sweden or Norway; as English is heard everywhere it reinforces those classroom lessons and helps perfect Scandinavian’s grasp of English. In contrast if you were to tune into a mainstream foreign language film in the UK, more often than not you would discover an English voiceover which further limits the UK’s access to foreign languages.”
Dagenstv.com confirms that in Sweden at the time of writing the mest populära TV-avsnitten just nu are: House, Battlestar Galactica, Six Feet Under, Fringe and The Vampire Diaries – all English language productions. Popular imports like these are generally aired in their original English, with Swedish subtitles – which further assists the learning of the language. British TV has always been similarly saturated with American imports, which we lapped up as kids. Maybe if the A Team and Scooby Doo had been beamed in to our house nightly in Swedish or Dutch I might be speaking a second or third language as fluently as Ollie does. The only subtitled foreign language import I ever recall watching on TV at that time was German – Das Boot – set (inevitably) in World War 2. Das Boot, set on board a German submarine, had my family particularly gripped. My mum never usually sat through war films, but she made an exception in this case – probably because her father’s ship had been torpedoed by a U-boat in the Mediterranean in 1942. Das Boot was more psychological thriller than blood & guts war film and became a classic hit. Watching it in its original language, rather than watching an American actor putting on a comedy German accent, just added to its authenticity and following the English subtitles was perfectly OK. Shortly after it’s screening, I took German as a language option at school, in addition to compulsory French.
British TV was restricted to 3, then 4 channels when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s. But, as for Ollie’s generation in Sweden, the number of free to air channels now available to British teenagers has proliferated. The showing of European language imports on TV has improved, but is still relatively very limited. BBC4 has tapped into popular European crime dramas which have been ratings successes in the UK – particularly the original (and best) Swedish version of detective series Wallender and Danish thriller The Killing, which averaged 500,000 viewers despite being subtitled. However, expensively produced, popular American films and TV shows will always colonise the world.
English as a World Language
Wikipedia summarises the origins of English and its dominance as a ‘world language’. English is a Germanic language and originates from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England that sprang up in the 5th century AD. Many English words derive from Latin, the common language of the Christian Church in the Dark Ages. English was also influenced by Old Norse due to Viking invasions in the 8th-9th centuries and Norman-French from the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century. Because of this assimilation of various European languages, modern English contains a very large vocabulary. The colonial influence of the British Empire from the 18th century and the economic and cultural influence of the United States since the mid-20th century widely dispersed English around the world. It is the language most often taught as a second language and is used as an official language of the UN, the EU and many Commonwealth countries. It is, by international treaty, the official language for air and maritime communication. Books, magazines, and newspapers written in English are available in many countries around the world. Researchers and professionals in the fields of science, medicine and technology publish in English to ensure maximum exposure. As a result, English has a rich technical vocabulary and so native and non-native speakers alike use it to communicate ideas. Most recently, English has become the dominant language of the internet – overall web content in English may be as high as 80%. English is now no longer the exclusive cultural property of its original native speakers. Its global use has had a large impact on many other languages, leading to language shift and even language death.
Is English Killing Other Languages?
The dominance of English in Sweden is a worry for Hans Malv, a Swedish medical doctor. His website www.2-2.se contains an intelligent series of articles campaigning for the use of Esperanto as a common world language. He says that a world where everyone understands one another is a better world, but believes that English is not the best means of achieving it as it’s too complicated and requires too much effort to learn. In an article ‘Why is your Mother Tongue important?’ he sees the English language as a threat to Swedish language and culture. He states that several Swedish linguists already predict that the English language will be the dominating language in Sweden within a few generations. This dominance has already caused Sweden to ‘lose domain’ in research and higher education, particularly in the natural sciences, medicine and technology. When a language is no longer used in a certain area of expertise it can effectively wither away and die. The Swedish language commission (Svenska språknämnden) is concerned about the lack of Swedish words and expressions in the worlds of finance, IT and politics, particularly since Sweden joined the EU in 1995. With much industry and trade adopting English as their corporate language, Swedish is only heard “when two Swedes meet for a cup of coffee”. Hans is especially concerned that English will became Sweden’s ‘official language’ whilst Swedish is relegated to ‘home use’; the co-existence of a ‘high’ and a ‘low’ language being a hallmark of old colonialism.
Is English Easy to Learn?
An EU poll has found that a large percentage of the adult population in non-English speaking EU countries can converse in English: 85% in Sweden, 83% in Denmark, 79% in the Netherlands and over 50% in Austria and Germany. Does this mean that English is easy to learn? The consenus on discussion sites such as UsingEnglish.com is that it is an easy language to pick up and start speaking fairly quickly because it does not to have the complexity and abundance of grammatical rules that many languages have. In German, for example, nouns can be masculine, feminine or neuter (der, die or das), often at random. In English, nouns have no sex! Learning nouns by rote becomes double the trouble when you have to learn its gender too, and make any associated adjective and verb endings match. Mark Twain, a frustrated student of German, put it like this in his 1880 essay The Awful German Language:
“Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.”
He was talking of course of das Mädchen (girl) and die Rübe (turnip). English also has a lot of short words that are easier to learn and memorise. German is notorious for its ultra long compound words which, particularly in scientific and technical terminology, can be unlimited in length. Even in more everyday use, a modern English word like contraceptives becomes Schwangerschaftsverhütungsmittel in German. Before you think that, like Mark Twain, I’m unfairly picking on German, some words – like Zeitgeist meaning spirit of the age – are so perfectly succinct that they are used in English without the need for translation. A single English word can have many different meanings depending on context. This is an advantage as lots of expressions can be made by learning just a relatively small number of words; consider the number of different meanings of the words make, set, run and take.
The consensus among students of English, however, is that having mastered the basics it becomes hard to reach very high levels of fluency. Despite the fact that there are fewer general grammatical rules, there are many inconsistencies and exceptions to those rules which will always give a foreign speaker of English away. Even native speakers like me battle daily with them. The English system of spelling doesn’t help either, nor does its vast vocabulary. eHow contributors posted their thoughts on problems in learning the English language, including difficulties with punctuation, spelling and the English habit of casually dropping idioms into their speech.
Punctuation rules in written English can make comprehension difficult. One habit I have in my writing is to use apostrophes for contracting words, e.g. isn’t for is not and doesn’t for does not. I do this to present a conversational style of writing. It isn’t appropriate for, say, a formal letter and I wouldn’t do it at work (unless sending an e-mail, where the rules are more relaxed). Germanic languages do use apostrophes for contracting words, but many languages do not.
There are often inconsistencies in the way a word is spelt and the way it is pronounced. The absurdities of English spelling are famously highlighted in the construction of the word ghoti as a respelling of the word fish – gh is pronounced f as in rough; o is pronounced i as in women; and ti is pronounced sh as in nation.
The English language is full of idioms – phrases that require cultural background knowledge to fully comprehend. They are used so often that native English speakers don’t recognise them as idioms, but a literal interpretation of them would mightily confuse an unsuspecting foreign student. If an Englishman says “Pardon my French”, he’s not apologising for his bad use of French, he’s apologising for swearing; this can only be understood in the context of the long historical relationship between England and France. It should be noted that the French have many similar idioms about the English.
Because English stems from Germanic Anglo-Saxon, with extensive borrowing from Old Norse, a Scandinavian or German speaker will have a head start in learning it over, say, a Japanese or Russian speaker. Similarly the Latin root words and assimilation of Norman French will it easier for speakers of French and Spanish. When I was a university student living in digs in Leeds, one of my housemates was a Spanish girl who spoke perfect English (with an accent that was far posher than mine). I regularly used to baffle her with the odd bit of Lancashire dialect like, “put t’wood i’ th’ole” (put the wood in the hole, i.e. close the door). Or, if she came home with something from the shops, “where’s th’a copped that frae?” (where have you got that from?). Much northern English dialect is Old Norse in origin and would probably equally baffle someone from the south of England, but might just bring a glimmer of recognition from a Norwegian or Danish speaker – where’s th’a copped that frae? – hvor har du købt der fra?
Problems Learning Foreign Languages
Whatever the merits or demerits of English, its world dominance looks set to stay. Does this mean it’s no longer necessary for native English speakers to learn other languages? An article in The Independent in August 2010 on ‘The language crisis in British schools’ bemoaned the fact that for the first time ever, French had slipped out of the top 10 of the most popular subjects at GCSE. It called this “the most obvious sign of the seemingly inexorable slide in languages take-up in schools”. The number of GCSE students taking French fell from 341,604 to 177,618 between 2002 and 2010. Those taking German over the same period slumped from 130,976 to 70,619. One of those who posted a comment on the article, Hejallihopa (which Swedish speakers will recognise), said that he spoke several languages fluently but had never been able to find a full time job where he could use them. This was because he was a native English speaker, and to become proficient in languages he had had to study them to a high (university) level, meaning that he didn’t study anything else. He believed that as most language-related jobs tended to require an additional skill set, such as a degree in engineering or computer programming, employers were much more likely to go to people from outside the UK who could combine their native language with something else.
This view was echoed in a report by Dr Catherine Watts of the School of Languages at the University of Brighton in 2003. The report, undertaken on behalf of the Anglo-German Foundation, investigated the decline in the take-up of modern languages at degree level and surveyed a number of English students and teachers. From the students’ perspective the range of employment options available following language study was limited. Modern foreign languages were not perceived as academic subjects in their own right, but rather as an extra qualification. The type of jobs available for linguists, e.g. translating and teaching held little appeal compared to professions such as law, engineering and medicine. There was also a notion that ‘English was enough’ particularly with regard to new technologies such as the internet. The poor reputation of the English and their foreign language abilities meant that their European counterparts with their superior foreign language skills had the competitive edge in the search for jobs.
The report found that the way languages were taught in school was a major switch off for kids. At GCSE level the perception was that ‘you don’t actually learn to speak, it’s just writing stuff down and learning it parrot-fashion’; there was no emphasis on just ‘chatting away’. They also believed that the vocabulary they were taught was dated, because the teachers’ own language use was old-fashioned (an impression reinforced by visiting exchange students). The compulsory study of foreign languages was introduced too late into the school curriculum in England compared to other countries, resulting in a big jump between GCSE and A-level language study, in terms of vocabulary, grammar and workload generally, which was stressful and off-putting. This struck a chord with me. I learned both French and German to GCSE standard in secondary school (and got As in both) but was put off A-level study because of the requirement to study literature in depth. One student who had studied German literature at A-level found it ‘unbelievably boring’, the choice of books made by the teachers was unstimulating and having to learn lengthy quotes in German was tedious. It seemed the only focus of formal language study was the final exam grade.
I did return to studying German as an adult with the Open University, but it wasn’t a happy experience. I took their Rundblick and Auftakt courses and the content material and quality of tutoring was very good. Despite holding down a very busy job in the RAF at the time (including an operational deployment to Iraq) I scored highly in each assessment. However, after 2 years’ study I inexplicably failed my final end of course assessment. Despite a high pass in the speaking test, I discovered that I had failed the final written test. I read and re-read a copy of the script that I had submitted – it fulfilled all the elements of the brief and was very carefully crafted. Convinced that there must be some error in the marking system I contacted the OU appeals department for an investigation of the result. I got an e-mail back referring me to the OU’s terms and conditions, which said that decisions were final and there was no right of appeal. It was not possible to have your script marked again, have your script given back to you, or get detailed information about your performance in the exam. I felt stitched like a kipper. Instead of sending them the money they had demanded to resit the exam, I spent it instead on a long weekend break for me and Sandra in Munich.
Learning by Living Abroad
If formal study is so off putting, is the most effective way to learn a foreign language to live abroad rather than to study it in a classroom? Undoubtedly yes, but this also led Dr Watts’ students to worry about the demands of studying a foreign language in a foreign country. There was a general lack of confidence about the ability to speak in a second language and feelings of embarrassment in conversing with native speakers.
For those not afraid to ‘have a go’, another problem is highlighted by Sean Whiting on transitionsabroad.com in his article “No, I Don’t Speak English”. Sean, an American, moved to Sweden for work and attempted to learn Swedish as a “friendly cultural gesture”. He found that people took every opportunity to practice their English skills on him, but he found it uncomfortable to be:
“…in the situation of demanding that your native-speaking friends and colleagues sacrifice their time and energy in order to give you a chance to remember that elusive word and grapple with your sentence structure in order to express an idea in a remotely interpretable manner. Everyone around you intends to help you learn your new language and appreciates your desire to do so, but when that a deadline is pressing English may suddenly regain the upper hand”.
He believes it is a mistake to think that “language-acquisition might occur by osmosis” and offers tips for being in a country where the native-speakers know your first language almost as well as you do, including: using trusted friends to help you outside of the normal pressures of work; watching/listening to television, DVDs and local radio as an aid to understanding a native language; and limiting your exposure to English. The Internet in particular allows expats to have “one foot in their new country and one foot in their native country”.
For many British people ‘abroad’ is still seen as a holiday destination rather than as a working base. As people in Britain do not hear European languages being used around them, an ‘island mentality’ has developed. This negative climate about Europe is regularly played upon by the tabloid press in Britain, especially to bash the EU. The trashy Sun newspaper in one of its campaigns against European Federalism made the President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, its target in 1990 with its famous headline “Up Yours Delors“. However, the EU as an institution only has itself to blame for these type of attacks and until it reforms itself to become more democratic and less wasteful of public cash they are likely to continue. The British tabloid press particularly likes to whip up anti-German jingoism when the football is on, with headlines usually harking back to the 2 world wars. The England v Germany game in Euro 96 brought the even trashier Daily Mirror‘s headline “Achtung! Surrender! For You Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over” along with a mock article based on the declaration of war between the two countries in 1939. The Mirror’s editor, Piers Morgan, later apologised for the headline as it was partially blamed for violence on the streets of England following their defeat on penalties. The Daily Mail’s ‘Kraut-bashing’ is only a bit more subtle. Ahead of the game between England and Germany in the 2010 World Cup it ran a feature on ‘iconic images from the game’s most evocative fixture’, which included photographs from the 1935 fixture at White Hart Lane, noting the Nazi swastika flying over Tottenham’s ground; the 1938 game in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, when “England bowed to German protocol, under orders from the British ambassador, and gave the Nazi salute”; as well as an obligatory shot of England’s only moment of World Cup glory in 1966 at Wembley. A popular chant amongst England fans at these fixtures remains, “Two World Wars and one World Cup”. This fervour tends not to register with German fans, who save their rivalry for the games against Holland – who are a better match in terms of footballing ability. It’s no wonder that a German nickname for the English is Inselaffe or Island Monkeys. When heavy drinking, violent, English football hooligans go on the rampage in European cities it must be tempting to think that evolution has stalled in our part of the British Isles. With tongue firmly in cheek, this mentality is captured in this edited clip of a discussion between Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington on their X-FM radio show.
The Republic of Ireland is geographically part of the British Isles and English speaking, although it works hard to preserve the native Irish Gaelic language. It is independent of the UK and is, politically and economically, fully integrated into the EU. It also does not have the same cultural hang ups with continental Europe (it saves those for England), and remained neutral during World War 2. Does this mean that Ireland’s take up of European languages is better than the UK? Unsurprisingly, yes. An article in The Irish Times in June 2010, although worrying about the percentage of students taking Irish being at its lowest level since records began, reported that out of 55,783 Leaving Certificate (GCSE equivalent) candidates, more than 28,000 took French around 7,000 took German – a significantly higher take up rate than in the UK.
Is there anything that the UK can, or should, do about this? One of the teachers in Dr Watts’ report offered the view that the ‘whole culture of negativity towards language learning starts right way back at primary school in the education system’ and that only ‘bold legislation’ could bring about the cultural changes which were, in her view, necessary. I disagree, being suspicious of governments forcing us to do anything, particularly dictating what we should study. I do agree with her point that a more effective response would gained from the wider UK media being more internationalist when reporting events and having greater respect for other cultures. Also helpful would be their positive promotion of foreign films and TV in the original language with subtitles, as well as high profile people who speak other languages, e.g. footballers and pop stars, to provide positive role models for young people. I’ll bet that what she didn’t have in mind was the following You Tube clip, which I will finish this piece with. Back to football, it features Steve McClaren, a former England coach who at that time was managing the Dutch team FC Twente – and it couldn’t contrast more with the Ollie Frisk clip. It shows how McClaren, a Yorkshireman, communicated in his native English with a Dutch TV interviewer. Cringe-making, but hilarious.